The night before Khadiza Sultana left for Syria she was dancing in her teenage bedroom. It was a Monday during the February school vacation. Her niece and close friend, at 13 only three years younger than Khadiza, had come for a sleepover. The two girls wore matching pajamas and giggled as they gyrated in unison to the beat.
Khadiza offered her niece her room that night and shared a bed with her mother. She was a devoted daughter, particularly since her father had died.
The scene in her bedroom, saved on the niece’s cellphone on Feb. 16 and replayed dozens of times by Khadiza’s relatives since, shows the girl they thought they knew: joyful, sociable, funny and kind.
As it turned out, it was also the carefully choreographed goodbye of a determined and exceptionally bright teenager who had spent months methodically planning to leave her childhood home in Bethnal Green, East London, with two schoolmates and follow the path of another friend who had already traveled to the territory controlled by the Islamic State.
On Tuesday morning, Khadiza got up early and put on the Lacoste perfume both she and her niece liked. She told her mother that she was going to school to pick up some workbooks and spend the day in the library. She grabbed a small day pack and promised to return by 4:30 p.m.
It was only that night that the family realized something was wrong. When Khadiza had not come back by 5:30, her mother asked her oldest sister, Halima Khanom, to message her, but there was no reply. Ms. Khanom drove to the library to look for her sister, but she was not there. She went to the school, but the staff said no student had come in that day.
By the time she came back home, her mother had checked Khadiza’s wardrobe and found that besides some strategically arranged items it was empty. “That’s when I started panicking,” Ms. Khanom, 32, said in a recent interview at the family home. Two tote bags were missing from the house. “She must have taken her things gradually and packed a suitcase somewhere else.”
Early the next morning her family reported Khadiza missing. An hour later, three officers from SO15, the counterterrorism squad of the Metropolitan Police, knocked on the door. “We believe your daughter has traveled to Turkey with two of her friends,” one said.
Even then, Ms. Khanom said, recalling the conversation, “Syria didn’t come into my mind.”
The next time she saw her sister was on the news: Grainy security camera footage showed Khadiza and her two 15 year-old friends, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase, calmly passing through security at Gatwick Airport for Turkish Airlines Flight 1966 to Istanbul and later boarding a bus to the Syrian border.
“Only when I saw that video I understood,” Ms. Khanom said.
These images turned the three Bethnal Green girls, as they have become known, into the face of a new, troubling phenomenon: young women attracted to what some experts are calling a jihadi, girl-power subculture. An estimated 4,000 Westerners have traveled to Syria and Iraq, more than 550 of them women and girls, to join the Islamic State, according to a recent report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which helps manage the largest database of female travelers to the region.
Many are single and young, typically in their teens or early 20s (the youngest known was 13). Their profiles differ in terms of socioeconomic background, ethnicity and nationality, but often they are more educated and studious than their male counterparts. Security officials now say they may present as much of a threat to the West as the men: Less likely to be killed and more likely to lose a spouse in combat, they may try to return home, indoctrinated and embittered.
One in four of the women in the Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s database are already widowed. But if women are a strategic asset for the Islamic State, they are hardly ever considered in most aspects of Western counterterrorism.
The Bethnal Green girls, slender teenagers with ready smiles and London accents, were praised by teachers and admired by fellow students at Bethnal Green Academy.
Khadiza, with straight chocolate-colored hair and thick-rimmed glasses, had been singled out as one of the most promising students in her year, according to a letter her mother received after mock exams only weeks before she left. In her bedroom, she kept a copy of a novel that a teacher had given to her with a handwritten dedication inside, dated January 2015: “Well done for working hard and exceeding your target grade for English language.” In her spare time she tutored less gifted peers.
Her bubbly friend Amira was a star athlete and a respected public speaker, once debating the rights of Muslim women to wear the veil. She was a regular at the local library, where she read voraciously. (After her disappearance, when the police went to check the list of books she had borrowed, one title, “Insurgent,” briefly rang alarm bells — until the officer realized that it was part of a popular dystopian teenage trilogy set in Chicago.)
“They were the girls you wanted to be like,” said one 14 year-old from the grade below.
Perhaps that is why everyone failed to respond to the many signs that foreshadowed their dark turn. The families, who noticed the girls’ behavior changing, attributed it to teenage whims; school staff members, who saw their homework deteriorate, failed to inform the parents or intervene; the police, who spoke to the girls twice about their friend who had traveled to Syria, also never notified the parents.
They were smart, popular girls from a world in which teenage rebellion is expressed through a radical religiosity that questions everything around them. In this world, the counterculture is conservative. Islam is punk rock. The head scarf is liberating. Beards are sexy.
Ask young Muslim women in their neighborhood what kind of guys are popular at school these days and they start raving about “the brothers who pray.”
The Islamic State is making a determined play for these girls, tailoring its siren calls to their vulnerabilities, frustrations and dreams, and filling a void the West has so far failed to address.
In post-9/11 austerity Britain, a time when a deep crisis of identity and values has swept the country, fitting in can be harder for Muslim girls than for boys. Buffeted by a growing hostility toward Islam and deep spending cuts that have affected women and young people in working-class communities like their own, they have come to resent the Western freedoms and opportunities their parents sought out. They see Western fashions sexualizing girls from an early age, while Western feminists look at the hijab as a symbol of oppression.
Asked by their families during sporadic phone calls and exchanges on social media platforms why they had run away, the girls spoke of leaving behind an immoral society to search for religious virtue and meaning. In one Twitter message, nine days before they left Britain, Amira wrote: “I feel like I don’t belong in this era.”
Muslim girls generally outperform the boys in school but are kept on a shorter leash at home. Many, like Khadiza, have sisters whose marriages were arranged when they were teenagers. Ms. Khanom, now 32, was 17 when she was wed, just a year older than Khadiza. And they wear head scarves, which identify them as Muslims in often-hostile streets.
In their world, going to Syria and joining the so-called caliphate is a way of “taking control of your destiny,” said Tasnime Akunjee, a lawyer who represents the families of the three girls.
“It’s about choice — the most human thing,” Mr. Akunjee said. “These girls are smart, they are A students. When you are smarter than everyone else, you think you can do anything.”
Since they left their homes, bits and pieces have emerged about the three friends revealing a blend of youthful naïveté and determination.
Khadiza’s friend Amira, an acquaintance of the family said, “fell in love with the idea of falling in love.” At one point, she posted the image of a Muslim couple with the caption: “And he created you in pairs.”
Khadiza, by contrast, told her sister in one of the first Instagram conversations after her arrival in Syria: “I’m not here just to get married.”
The Islamic State has proved adept at appealing to different female profiles, using girl-to-girl recruitment strategies, gendered imagery and iconic memes.
The group runs a “marriage bureau” for single Western women. This year, the media wing of Al Khanssaa Brigade, an all-female morality militia, published a manifesto stipulating that women complete their formal education at age 15 and that they can be married as young as 9, but also praising their existence in the Islamic State as “hallowed.”
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, took a young German woman of Iraqi descent as his third wife and put her in charge of women’s issues in the caliphate, according to information circulating among Islamic State-affiliated social media accounts.
Social media has allowed the group’s followers to directly target young women, reaching them in the privacy of their bedrooms with propaganda that borrows from Western pop culture — images of jihadists in the sunset and messages of empowerment. A recent post linked to an Islamic State account paraphrased a popular L’Oréal makeup ad next to the image of a girl in a head scarf: “COVERed GIRL. Because I’m worth it.”
“It’s a twisted version of feminism,” said Sasha Havlicek, a co-founder and the chief executive of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, who testified about Western women under the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 29.
“For the girls, joining ISIS is a way to emancipate yourself from your parents and from the Western society that has let you down,” Ms. Havlicek said. “For ISIS, it’s great for troop morale because fighters want Western wives. And in the battle of ideas they can point to these girls and say: Look, they are choosing the caliphate over the West.”
A Friend’s Departure
In January 2014, one of Khadiza’s best friends, Sharmeena Begum, no relation to Shamima, lost her mother to cancer. Her father soon started courting a woman who would become his second wife.